As World War Two came to a close Britain was faced with a dilemma: she was almost bankrupt, and facing both huge debts and a major shortage of labour. The solution was to welcome in migrants from across the Empire to work in factories, mines, docks and hospitals across the UK. The Black Country in particular benefitted from the new labour force: its foundries and furnaces had been running at full power for the war effort but now production had turned back to the domestic and export market, they were struggling to produce enough to keep the economy going with the limited labour supply.
And so migrants arrived from British colonies in the Caribbean, the Middle East and the British Indian Empire. In 1947, after a long campaign the British Indian Empire won independence, and the colony was divided into the new Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan. The partitioning of the two new countries was done with such haste, however, that bitter battles ensued – hundreds of thousands of people were killed and around 14 million displaced. The poverty and persecution of many Indians and Pakistanis led more to migrate to Britain, and soon Asian communities could be found across the country.
In the Black Country, Indian migrants arrived in a cold, often unwelcoming country. Often it was the men of the family that moved here first, and many had to live in overcrowded houses, sharing beds between the day and night shifts. Many of those in this area were from the Punjab and Gujarat regions of India, and were of Sikh, Muslim or Hindu faith. With their hard work the local economy boomed in the 1950s and their families were able to join them. By now, Indian communities were established across the region, particularly in towns such as Smethwick, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton with their large employers and connections with the thriving car industry. The 1960s saw more Indian families arrive, joined by families who had been living successful lives in East Africa. Major upheavals followed the independence of these countries and many Indian families had to move to Britain to escape persecution.
Since their arrival, Asians in Britain have been subject to discrimination and prejudice. Bus strikes in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich in the 1950s followed the local authorities’ decisions to employ Indian staff; and in the 1960s the Indian community of Smethwick – largely made up of Punjabi-born Sikhs – were subject to a series of attacks. An MP was even elected in Smethwick in 1964 on the basis of an explicitly racist campaign and occasioned a visit to the town from the famous American civil rights activist Malcolm X, just days before his assassination.
The Black Country found itself in the headlines again in 1967, when Tarsem Singh Sandhu – a Punjabi bus driver in Wolverhampton – was sent home for choosing to wear a turban and a beard. The case made national headlines and affected race relations in the area for many years. Not long afterwards the town’s MP, Enoch Powell, gave the “rivers of blood” speech in Birmingham that made him infamous – he blamed “coloured” people for many of the ills of modern society and became the figurehead for a new wave of racism and fear of immigrants.
By the 1970s, immigration from Asia was at a height, with thousands arriving each year. By this time, those who had moved here during the 1950s and 1960s were parents and a new second generation grew up. The decade was one of turmoil, however. The failure of many British industries at the end of the 1960s led to the closure of many of the foundries and factories that had employed Indian workers, and many had to learn to adapt to a new sort of economy. As well as being mainstays of the transport sector and the National Health Service, Indians became entrepreneurs, running shops and businesses such as the unique Black Country mix of local and Indian culture – the desi pub, serving local beer and Punjabi food. As a new West Midlands county was formed too, Indian councillors were serving the community: one of the first mayors of the new Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell was Dr Hiren Roy, born in India and a GP who practiced at Great Barr from 1946 to 2001.